A more civil discourse: idealistic pragmatism

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall Political discourse these days seems more fitted to Halloween than All Saints Day. Angels … Continued


By Katherine Marshall

Political discourse these days seems more fitted to Halloween than All Saints Day. Angels and devils, witches and shamans. Rancid prose. We all wonder and worry at the nastiness that shows up in political campaign ads, the polarized news outlets, and beyond.

Yet much as we yearn for civil discourse, we need to recognize that this strain of vitriol is, and has been, very much part of the American scene. Commentator Bill Moyers recently observed: “I would say it’s more deranged than delirious, and definitely not un-American. Those crackpots on the right praying for Obama to die and be sent to hell — they’re the warp and woof of home-grown nuttiness. So is the creature from the Second Amendment who showed up at the President’s rally armed to the teeth. He’s certainly one of us. Red, white, and blue kooks are as American as apple pie and conspiracy theories.”

A kind of road rage seems to have taken over. Anyone with a differing opinion is demonized. But is there another way? Surely a more civil discourse and reasoned ethics is as deeply part of the American tradition.

I had the good fortune this week to be a fly on the wall at a phenomenon that tackles tough issues of ethical principles and choices in a different way. Sitting in on a weekly “Ethics Consult” at the Chicago Medical School, I witnessed a passionate and reasoned effort to deal with situations that present ethical choices. Every week, one or more physicians present a case that they see as having difficult ethical elements.

I was a privileged observer, invited because I had lectured earlier in the day, at the invitation of Dr. Mark Siegler, a renowned medical ethics scholar. Mark established the consult and moderates it. The details are confidential but I have his agreement that I can share my impressions. The day I participated, the issues turned around organ transplant choices, care of a very sick infant, and treatment of a difficult and homeless patient.
The scene: a room with about 50 people, most in white coats. Constant eruption of buzzing demands from pagers as doctors responded to urgent calls (they left the room and quickly returned). The consult started with someone reading a short presentation of the situation, followed by an intense, engaged, and caring discussion of the issues and choices. Technical, medical exchanges were very much at the fore. The issues were real and immediate; decisions were in the offing.

What struck me most forcibly was that this discourse was serious, engaged and respectful. People listened to each other. They were asking for help and listening to a wide range of suggestions, not shyly or cagily advanced, but put forth in clear and opinionated terms. People asked questions to understand the cases better. These were tough issues that can be seen in different ways, but these doctors had to make a choice. They had no way to duck the matter; the responsibility lay on their shoulders. They listened to others’ advice but made their decisions alone after they left the room.
Everyone learns from the process. And at the end of the two-hour meeting, the papers outlining the cases are collected (so nothing leaks) and everyone leaves, rushing to their next obligation.

I came away with two thoughts.

The first is that the ethics consult formula could and should have much wider application. I can readily imagine it at the World Bank or the United Nations Security Council or Judge Goldstone’s commission on Gaza. People who are grappling with complex ethical choices need a safe, demanding, and respectful space to thrash out the issues and options.

And second, the kind of discourse I was privileged to witness among deeply engaged and committed doctors is what we need in the public policy sphere. It’s about facts first, about curiosity and a readiness to listen. It’s about hearing different views. It’s about a willingness to change opinion and then take responsibility. It’s an idealistic pragmatism that is surely as much part of the American tradition as mud-slinging invective.
And it’s about realizing that ethics, whether inspired by the theological principles of love, or by a physician’s determination to help people, is about real choices nuanced by daily realities, more than absolutes and unbending principles.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior adviser for the World Bank.

By Katherine Marshall | 
November 2, 2009; 8:26 AM ET

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  • ccnl1

    One of Jesse Jackson’s favorite quotes (which obviously he did not follow) is:”There is too much intercourse, without discourse.” i.e. rational talk/pragmatism is good for in any pursuit or project. Of course with respect to Islam, there can be no rational discourse/pragmatism because their operating manual aka the koran does not allow it.

  • Mary_Cunningham

    Islam is certainly a force to be reckoned with, not because it is evil—it’s not—but because Muslims are not adverse to using compulsion when they feel threatened. In contrast traditional Christianity—especially Georgetown’s brand of liberal Catholicism– seems to operate under an invisible death wish: beset by militant atheists, left wing seculars, the right wing Jewish lobby and the far right remnants of Northern Irish Paisley Presbyterians (where Dawkins’ ‘intellectual’ predecessors are) and unable (or unwilling) to defend itself.Considering the above I find that the Post should be featuring the above article the height of hypocrisy. Publish a rabid rant by Dick Dawkins, the potty-mouthed professor, and afterwards present an article calling for pragmatism and courtesy in public dealings. Oh yes! How consistent! But tell me, Professor Marshall, did you even

  • gimpi

    “A kind of road rage seems to have taken over. Anyone with a differing opinion is demonized. But is there another way? Surely a more civil discourse and reasoned ethics is as deeply part of the American tradition.”Hooray! Why can’t we just talk with people we don’t agree with? We might even learn something. These days, people often don’t even bother to listen to each other, they are so busy hashing out what they are going to shout next. The whole “town hall” side-show took this to a new level of stupidity. Even if you are firmly convinced that you are right, and no one can teach you anything on whatever the topic under discussion is, what is the harm in listening? Why not at least TRY to understand another point of view. It’s not a sign of weakness, rather it’s a mark of strength. And if, God help you, you change your mind, that’s great! It means you learned something. This is not something to be feared. It’s not flip-flopping to revise your view of the world, it’s a mark of an active, involved mind. Can we comment on the topic people, instead of just copying-and-pasting or expounding on our hobby-horses? Civil discourse, it’s not just for Canadians any more.

  • ccnl1

    Civil discourse with Muslims can begin after the following passages are deleted from the koran: (until then, no Muslim can be trusted)Allah is an enemy to unbelievers. – Sura 2:98On unbelievers is the curse of Allah. – Sura 2:161Slay them wherever ye find them and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. – 2:191Fight against them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religion reigns supreme. (different translation: ) Fight them until there is no persecution and the religion is God’s entirely. – Sura 2:193 and 8:39Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. – 2:216….. martyrs…. Enter heaven – Surah 3:140-43If you should die or be killed in the cause of Allah, His mercy and forgiveness would surely be better than all they riches they amass. If you should die or be killed, before Him you shall all be gathered. – 3:157-8You must not think that those who were slain in the cause of Allah are dead. They are alive, and well-provided for by their Lord. – Surah 3:169-71Let those fight in the cause of God who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fights in the cause of God, whether he is slain or victorious, soon we shall give him a great reward. – Surah 4:74Those who believe fight in the cause of God, and those who reject faith fight in the cause of evil. – 4:76But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever you find them. – 4:89Therefore, we stirred among them enmity and hatred, which shall endure till the Day of Resurrection, when Allah will declare to them all that they have done. – 5:14O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; they are friends of each other. Those of you who make them his friends is one of them. God does not guide an unjust people. – 5:54